Sir Andrew Cubie

21st October 2011 at 01:00
The chair of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education discusses his early trouble with trousers, the abiding lure of the sea and some misgivings about the "cherry-picking" of his report on the future of student finance in Scotland

How did you, as a lawyer, become involved so closely in education?

As soon as I graduated from university, I became a tutor in accounting and taxation in the law faculty at Edinburgh University. When I became chair of the CBI Scotland council, I continued that commitment to learning and development of people. I had had a curious experience of school, having failed my 11-plus and been expelled in my final weeks from Dollar Academy. I think I failed my 11-plus because I went to a village school which undertook no coaching for the test. I was expelled because I presented a petition to the head, signed by every boy in the school, saying that in 1963 perhaps boys other than prefects could be allowed to wear long trousers. I was travelling from Dunfermline to Dollar when it was still a mining community. Someone 6ft tall wearing short trousers in the centre of Dunfermline looked something of an oddity. Sadly, the headmaster's reaction was that anarchy had come to the school.

Have you ever regretted studying law and wished you'd become an educationist?

No - if I'd had another choice of career, I would have gone to sea. My grandfather ran away to sea at the age of 13 from Renfrew and spent 20 years on sailing ships. The sea has always had a great lure for me. But I've never felt that I had made a bad choice in terms of law. I hope I have become an effective bridge between this discipline and the world of government, business and education.

Your report on student finance underwent various changes. Was the baby thrown out with the bathwater?

My report was cherry-picked, particularly because the then Scottish Executive reduced the level from pound;25,000 annual income to pound;10,000 for when a graduate would begin to make a contribution to the Scottish graduate endowment fund. They emasculated much of the purpose of the report and I still consider that its essence - that it applied to all graduates, no matter their earlier background, when they were earning quite significant sums of money and could contribute to a hypothecated fund for the benefit of future disadvantaged students - was lost. Introducing payment at a level of pound;10,000 meant it caught a wide range of people far too early in their careers to be contemplating some form of payment.

What mistakes, if any, have politicians made in the intervening years in their handling of higher education funding?

I fear circumstances in Scotland are dictated by what happens elsewhere: for example, the review my colleagues and I undertook was carried out around student funding; it was not about the sector more broadly. We have had a continuation of review that I think has been too narrow in focus. We currently have reviews being undertaken about governance in the college and university sectors and I think we have missed the opportunity of an old-fashioned royal commission about higher education in Scotland in its full breadth.

Is the issue of higher education funding in Scotland being tackled with sufficient urgency?

No, the election this year for the Scottish Parliament got in the way of a variety of political propositions about the funding of higher education and the focus was almost exclusively on whether there should be fees or no fees. But the core funding of higher education is as important as the student or graduate contribution - so I think we have been responding more to what's happening in England than leading the way with innovative thinking.

What will be the impact of the introduction of pound;9,000-per-year tuition fees in the rest of the UK, and in Scotland for rest-of-UK students?

First, we have to accept we are part of the UK and part of the EU. When I wrote my own report 10 years ago, the Umbria-Cumbria problem was well- recognised and it seems that will continue to be an anomaly under our present constitutional arrangements. I think that as the years pass - given that what's been created is a marketplace, whether you approve of that or not - there is likely to be a greater breadth of fee level, both in England and Scotland.

Your latest foray into education policy is a joint project - between the Goodison Group (drawn from business, government and education) and Scotland's Futures Forum - to come up with ways of preparing young Scots better for work. What prompted it?

The Goodison Group has existed in Scotland for five years with a focus on issues relating to lifelong learning and that learning should be the expectation of every individual. We have contributed a number of papers around that theme, but have not had a sufficiently broad base of resources to undertake other research or acquire evidence systematically. So when the chance for collaboration with Scotland's Futures Forum arose - it too has an interest in lifelong learning as one of its themes - it seemed a very natural coming together of purpose.

Its scope will include early years - why?

To take a very easy metaphor, you don't construct a building on weak foundations. I had a sharp realisation at the age of 11 of what I might not be able to do and that stays with me vividly, half- a-century later.


Born: Northallerton, Yorkshire, 1946

Education: Scotlandwell Primary, Perth and Kinross; Dollar Academy; LL.B at Edinburgh University.

Career Solicitor; board member of Education Scotland; chair of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education; adviser to the World Bank on corporate governance in higher education; chair of the inquiry into student finance, set up in 1999 by the Scottish Executive.

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